Sympathy for the devil

Sympathy for the devil

Whisky is rock's decadent badge of credibility. Dave Broom rhapsodises about the bohemians whose primal screams reveal an inspired but tortured relationship with the bottle.

Whisky & Culture | 16 Apr 2000 | Issue 9 | By Dave Broom

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We’re at a party following a Primal Scream gig in Brighton. A friend presents guitarist Robert Young with a token of his appreciation, a 40oz bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Robert proceeds to spend the rest of the evening/morning dispensing huge draughts from his bottle to anyone foolish enough to empty their glass. The party degenerates into scenes of rock’n’roll madness, with this bottle somehow at the centre of it all: band, friends, fans, drinking in the dark, depraved, decadent soul of rock’n’roll. The band were not long back from Memphis, getting to the swaying, rolling, righteous soul of their music. A Confederate flag appears, the music blares, the bottle is passed around once again ... Whisk(e)y and rock’n’roll have a long convoluted relationship. But to get to the real roots you have to dig much deeper. Nashville-based Ben Payne, a self-styled, “recovering hillbilly flack” [press agent] and guardian of the country tradition takes it back to the late 1700s and into the Appalachians and the start of country music.“Country is a folk-based music,” he says. “The original settlers were Scots and Irish who brought their folk songs, their instruments. We owe it to these guys coming across and settling in the mountains. Look at where whiskey is produced in this country, it’s the same source as the music. To me, that means there must be some greater correlation.”The wave of Scots/Irish immigrants who arrived weren’t welcome on the east coast and drove west, settling in the woods and highlands of Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. They started making whisk(e)y and played their music, passing it down through the generations. People like the Watson family of North Carolina, arrived from Scotland in the 1820s, playing dance tunes, lullabies, ballads and moral tales. A straight-talking music. Poor people’s music. Doc Watson, the greatest of the country guitar pickers, learned to play on a banjo made from the skin of his grandmother’s cat.Moving forward in time, we come across a skinny, pale-faced 17-year-old boy who is standing on the stage of a honky-tonk on the Alabama/Tennessee border in 1938 singing to the rowdy whiskey-drinking crowd. The kid’s already had a skinful, it gives him courage, and anyway he’s been drinking moonshine since he was 11. A drunk begins yelling at him, so the kid grabs the steel fret bar from a steel guitar and whacks him over the head. The guy leaps on the stage and bites a chunk out the kid’s ear. Chaos ensues. Hank Williams (the kid in question) always appears somewhere along the line. But before Hank were people like Dock Boggs, who used to pluck his banjo and howl his frightening mountain blues in the coal fields of the Appalachians. Whiskey was never far from his mind. In Country Blues, a lament by a convict facing death the next day, he sings, “All around this old jailhouse is haunted, good people ... corn whiskey has surrounded my body ... pretty women is a-troublin’ my mind.” Boggs was one of a batch of young mountain music men who nervously arrived at auditions in the late 1920s, fortified by shots of good moonshine, to try to break into the music business. He recorded eight sides, then started moonshining and disappeared for 30 years.It was a wild time in the 1920s and ‘30s on the border. Blues guitarist Nat Reese, told the journalist Michael Keller of a typical Friday night in Keystone. “There was gambling, hustling, numbers playing, prostitution. You could buy any kind of whiskey you wanted: Scotch, bourbon, good moonshine, bad moonshine, almost-good moonshine ... On Friday nights ... they would hire someone to play, or two people to play guitar. A man’d knock the panelling out of between two rooms and make one great big space. People’d be dancing everywhere. That’s where I was playing the night the guy shot through the guitar.” He left. The rest of the band checked to see if anyone was hit, then went on playing.
Would they have written such sad songs, such songs of human pity and cold-hearted misery without the booze? I doubt it. Take any of Hank’s greatest songs: You win again, Take these chains from my heart, I’ll never get out this world alive, and you see a heart the heart cut open by a guitar, fiddle and a bottle of whiskey. They tap into the maudlin’, raw, emotional simplicity that has its roots in Celtic folk, distilled with the fuzzy sad, self-pitying love that only whisk(e)y produces. In country and blues music whiskey becomes a metaphor for the temptations of life ... the bottle lifts them up, deludes them, then brings them crashing down again. Listen to Ira Louvin’s The Kneeling Drunkards Plea, a holier-than-thou anti-drinking song, sung by a man with the voice of an angel and the heart of the devil when the whiskey madness descended. They share that strange Celtic schizoid relationship between fundamentalist religion and wild excess.“I drink so much whiskey, they call me whiskey man ... I gets up every morning with that whiskey bottle in my hand...” Black Bottom McPhail’s Whiskey-Man Blues typifies the drunkard’s dilemma. The drunk in the song knows he drinks too much, but only does so because his woman “treats him so mean” and, if he didn’t grab the bottle he believes “[he’ll] lose [his] mind”. A benign, helpless drunk who knows whiskey is killing him, but knows he’ll never give up. Whiskey has become a metaphor for a type of dangerous, but exciting living.“What is it about whiskey and musicians?” asks Ben Payne. “Well they have a mutual dependence. Tortured souls are always looking for pain and pleasure and that drives everything. Those tortured poetic souls need inspiration and they need their spirits salved ... with spirits. Life, to me, gets pretty basic, pain, pleasure, fear. Maybe whiskey and music both tap into some sort of primal instinct.” Blues (and country) songs are about betrayal, drunkenness, infidelity and destitution, sung by men and women who had lived the life. Robert Johnson, who sung “I’m a drunken-hearted man ... my life’s so full of misery...” was murdered by a woman slipping poison into his whiskey. In Sleepy John Estes’ hands whiskey becomes something entirely different. When he sings “you can get what you want, right here in my liquor store ...”, you know it isn’t just liquor that’s on offer!This simple, allusion-rich, lyricism is at the heart of blues and country and when the two fused to become rock’n’roll whisk(e)y went with them ... and both went directly into the soul of a young rebellious teenager from the southern England town of Dartford, who would become the greatest whiskey-man in rock’n’roll history – Keith Richards. On the Rolling Stones’ first US tour in 1964, the then bad boys of rock’n’roll were constantly hassled by the police. On one occasion a cop burst into their dressing room and told them to pour their whiskey and coke down the toilet. Keith refused, saying, “Why the f... are you asking me to pour your national drink down the bog?” The cop pulled a gun on him.Keith was obsessed with America, but it was only on the albums Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and, most of all on Exile on Main Street, that modern-day whisk(e)y music was formed. The fusing of Robert Johnson’s blues, Gram Parson’s country soul, folk and a rebel attitude produced a new type of rock’n’ roll that was loose, yet tight, decadent and ultimately alluring because it rolled, sneered and moaned. There’s nothing else that the Stones could have drunk but whiskey. “It was 120 degrees [when we were recording Exile on Main Street],” Keith once recalled. “Everyone sat around sweating and playing with their pants off. That’s when I got into Jack Daniel’s, because you’re trying to get the back-up vocals finished on a track...and the voice starts to go, this Jack gives you another half an hour. It’s the fumes that do it.”And the fumes were also now permeating a new branch of the increasingly fragmented rock’n’roll industry. The Doors’ Jim Morrison had boozed his way round the dark side of Los Angeles, Janis Joplin had chugged down her last Southern Comfort, Hendrix’s Jack Daniel’s drinking days were over. By the 1970s the naive peace and love optimism of the 1960s was dead. Progressive rock was appearing, the Eagles had bastardised Gram Parsons and Gene Clark’s vision of a new country music, fey singer-songwriters sang to sensitive students, but a new, whiskey-fuelled, righteous boogie was emerging, played by the Stooges, MC5, The Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Faces. Their music was tapping into the same roots that had inspired Dock Boggs, Skip James, Robert Johnson, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams.A photo of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s drummer Artimus Pyle and guitarist Allen Collins shows Collins holding a baby chimp who is necking a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. By the 1970s, rock’n’roll had gone back to the delta, back to the folk/country/blues gumbo of the Deep South. It was Rebel Yell music. Confederate music. Few personified it like Lynyrd Skynyrd. They could drink, they had long hair, they beat each other up, they grabbed their bottles of Jack Daniel’s and wrapped themselves in the Confederate flag. Few records have the smell of bourbon around them like those first Lynyrd Skynyrd albums. Keith hadn’t given up either. From 1974 to the early 1980s, he was rarely without his fist around a bottle. Rebel Yell had taken the place of heroin. He’d march into the Rolling Stones Records office at 6pm, bottle in hand demanding breakfast and cutting the seal open with a knife. The decadent party was in full swing, crystalising (in a whisky sense) on Tom Waits’ Heartattack and Vine. The record is filled with references. “You know there ain’t no devil, that’s just God when he’s drunk” (Heartattack and Vine); “Red pants and the Sugarman in the Temple Street gloom, drinking Chivas Regal in a four dollar room ...” (Downtown); “Can’t you hear the thunder? Someone stole my watch, sold a quart of blood, bought half a pint of Scotch.”(‘Til the Money Runs Out). The music is back on the dangerous streets, telling the life stories of the pimps, the hustlers, hookers and dealers. Drenched in whisky and blue smoke, people are seen through the crazed refractions of a glass and like the best whisk(e)y music, the result is somehow redemptive.“In the days of the great rock boozers of the early ‘70s, all you ever heard was that they drank ‘a bottle of brandy’ (or more) a day,” says UDV’s Nick Morgan. “Think Keith Moon, Ringo, Clapton (I saw him drink a bottle on stage in about 1977 – lucky for him that Stevie Ray Vaughan was standing behind him playing the guitar!), Pete Townshend and the rest. Brandy was a generic for UK rock’n’roll drunkenness, for everyone except Keith.”Which you may think blows my theory out of the water, but not quite because the fact that Keith and the rest chose bourbon speaks volumes about their attitude to rock’n’roll. Even while the brandy drinking was going on, by 1975 if you wanted to be thought of as an authentic rocker you drank and were photographed with a bottle of whisk(e)y. The bottle had become iconic.An Annie Liebowitz photo of the Stones in 1978 pictures Jagger at the centre, just off the stage, stripped to the waist, pale as a corpse, all cheekbones, lips and stoned eyes. He’s carrying a can of Coca Cola. The rest of the band are ignoring him, all looking at Keith talking to Ronnie Wood, cigarette in mouth, smirk on his face, bottle of Jack Daniel’s in his hand. It sums up the band. Jagger has become the polo-loving accountant, Keith and Ronnie are the rock’n’rollers ... the whiskey men. “After Keith was seen drinking Jack Daniel’s it had a sort of snowball effect,” says John Hayes at Jack’s owner Brown-Forman. “If you are a macho rock’n’roller you have to drink it. I’ve seen U2, Jimmy Page, Guns’n’Roses, Oasis with it ... you go right down the line of people.” These people’s legendary excesses is one reason why Jack Daniel’s daren’t become too closely associated with its wayward brand ambassadors. “On the one hand it’s great that they drink it, but after detox it’s a different story!” says Hayes. “It’s a party industry ... but we have to be careful.” It’s been picked up by the new alternative country scene that is reinterpreting Country’s roots. When Sparklehorse’s singer, Mark Linkous, was confined to a wheelchair he had a bottle carrier attached to one of the arms to hold his Jack Daniel’s as he whizzed round the stage. The love/hate relationship between whiskey and music is healthy. “I’ll tell you this,” says Ben Payne. “You go into a honkytonk in Texas and they ain’t drinkin’ wine, they’re drinkin’ whiskey.”And they’re drinking it not just because the like the taste, but because in some vicarious way it taps into the blues/country/rock’n’roll lifestyle. It’s one reason why Zoe Ball made sure she was photographed clutching a bottle of Jack Daniel’s as she stepped out of the registry office. It’s a post-modern ironic underlining of her rock chick image. The irony behind this is that Keith hasn’t drunk bourbon for 18 years and doesn’t even like Jack Daniel’s. It doesn’t matter. The image is set and the fact that Brown-Forman resolutely refuses to give their advertising a rock’n’roll edge only helps its iconic status. When Rebel Yell tried to tap into the fact it was allegedly Keith’s favourite brand in the 1980s, it fell flat on its face. You can’t tell people to be rebels.So did Primal Scream drink it because Keith drank it? Who knows. Maybe it just, unthinkingly, became part of the package. There are few bands as deeply in love with music, so imbued with rock’s strange myths and symbols as this hard-living, hard-partying, excessive gang. Their PA, Alex Nightingale, never used to be separated from a very official-looking Samsonite briefcase which gave him the air of a slightly dissolute lawyer. But inside there were no contracts, no schedules, press releases, nothing but a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. An attempt to get him personally sponsored by Jack fell on deaf ears.Oasis, inevitably, took up whisk(e)y to bolster their image as serious party animals ... or maybe not. At the Brit Awards one year some guys from UDV noticed they were drinking Johnnie Walker Black Label with alarming speed. Eventually they plucked up enough courage to ask Noel Gallagher why. “Because for every bottle we drink we get a free glass!” says Noel. As Iggy Pop points out in his introduction to music writer Nick Kent’s The Dark Stuff, “[there is a] strange relationship between the repulsive and the attractive poles of human beings. I love you, I hate you.” We revel in our rock’n’roll heroes’ tales of excess. Drinking bourbon while listening to rock’n’roll is the same as a 45-year-old accountant putting on his leathers, getting on his Harley Davidson and, for a second, thinking he is Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider. So what’s all this to do with the serious business of appreciating the finer points of the drink? Everything. Whisk(e)y isn’t just about serious
tasting, collecting distilleries and connoisseurship, it’s about life - in all its strange glory.
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